Throughout Having Our Say, naming both degrades and offers respect. Nanny and Henry Delany refer to each other by their last names, even in front of family, because they want to teach their children and others to respect themselves and their race. During slavery, whites use derogatory words to refer to blacks, and blacks are not generally allowed to keep their last names. Rather, they adopt the last name of their owner. The Delany parents know the significance of a name and resist the racist vocabulary of their youth. When Nanny Delany tells a white traveler not to call her “auntie,” her daughters perceive her dignity and learn the importance of naming. Each of the Delany children takes the name of somebody their parents respected, and the advancement of blacks and their sense of identity hinges on their power to name themselves.
The drive to seek an education shapes Sadie and Bessie’s lives more than any other factor, and they pursue it as part of what they see as their duty to the black race, to family, and to their own talents. Early on, Henry Delany instills in his daughters the notion that education is a necessity. Many people at the turn of the twentieth century view education as the key to the improvement of black life, but because choosing higher education and a professional career is atypical for women at this time, particularly black women, Sadie and Bessie are unique. People do not see marriage and children as being compatible with a career, and the sisters give up these things to become educated and improve the lot of both blacks and women. As black women, they are pioneers at many institutions of higher learning, and their presence and outstanding performance open doors for those who would follow.
Obstacles block the paths Sadie and Bessie must travel as professional black women. Time and time again, the women meet laws or individuals that stop them from moving forward. The Jim Crow laws debase them from the time they are young girls, and New York University prohibits Bessie from enrolling in the dentistry program because she is a woman. Sadie has to outsmart the New York school system, which does not want black teachers in the classroom with white students. Even as centenarians, the women continue to battle society’s reluctance to give blacks and women a fair chance at reaching their goals. The sisters realize from a young age that these obstacles simply mean that they’ll have to be the best at what they do. They excel persistently, and their struggle to succeed despite the odds is at the heart of Having Our Say.